Why Kids Test Our Limits & What to Do About It

Why Kids Test Our Limits & What to Do About It

“Please don’t jump on the couch.”

“I told you not to jump on the couch.”


We set limits, and our children test them.

Conventional parenting advice says that it’s a children’s job to test our limits and that they’ll do this to find out how we’ll react. They want to find holes in our patience or our logic, and to check that we’re going to hold our limit. They are trying to establish a hierarchy of power in the relationship, and gain control of the situation.

And they are. If we view our relationship with our child as a zero-sum game, one person’s win has to be balanced by another person’s loss.  And if we aren’t the winner, then the alternative—that our child might have the upper hand—is too difficult to even imagine.

And if our goal is to make sure your children don’t get the upper hand, then we’ll always be in this struggle to make sure we’re on top.

We Feel Like We Need Control

At the root of these struggles is what feels like a need for control. And I say “feels like,” because any illusion that we have control over anything in our lives is exactly that: an illusion.

We feel like we control our schedules, our children’s activities, our finances. But if we think about it, actually very little of those things are under our control.  (Don’t think about it too long—it can be scary!)

Society tells us that it’s our job to be in control—we learned this from our parents (as well as school), and now we’re teaching it to our children by setting limits on their behavior.

But what if it didn’t have to be like this? What if we could not be in an antagonistic relationship with our children and also not have them constantly test us?

Most parents assume that the solution to children not listening (or deliberately ignoring) limits is, you guessed it, more limits. And stronger enforcement of limits. That when our children listen to us, we might be able to back off a little. Maybe.

The Solution Is Fewer Limits

Yes, I know it seems counterintuitive. If our children aren’t listening to us now, how could setting fewer limits possibly be the answer?

Because setting limits sets the tone of our relationship. And if our relationship is based on power, antagonism, and control, then our children will always try to get the upper hand. How could they not? They are learning from us that someone needs to have it, and the person who doesn’t have it gets walked all over, so they’d better at least give it a shot.

But if we set fewer limits, we set an entirely different tone.

A collaborative tone. A communicative tone. A tone that says: “Our relationship is the most important thing to me.”

So how do we set fewer limits without letting our kids walk all over us?

The key is to set limits that are grounded in your values. When you do this, your child hears in your voice that you’re serious. (You’ve noticed this before, right? When you say something that you believe in, and your child doesn’t protest?)

So you set limits on issues that are important to you—and the rest of them—you let go.

It’s not easy.

It’s a huge mindset shift, so I run a free workshop to help parents do it.

The strangest part about it all is that it doesn’t require us to get our children to do anything. We aren’t trying to change their behavior. We aren’t trying to control them, or win a battle over them. We’re finding a new way to be in a relationship with them that’s so much more peaceful and joyful and just plain fun!

And also, it’s easier than the other way. Because everyone could use some more easy in their life right now.


Feature photo: Pixel-Shot via Shutterstock


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